When I entered Grade 7, I was still only ten years old. My 11th birthday didn’t occur till the end of September. There was a boy in my class who was more than a year older than me, because, back then, they failed students who did not achieve scholastically. Early in November, as we were both hanging our coats up, he dug into his pocket, and showed me something. It was a bright, brass, expended .22 caliber shell. Gun nut that I was, it was as if he’d showed me the Holy Grail. Where had he got it?
It seemed that there was a group of boys who got together every Tuesday night, to fire 10 target practice shots, but you had to be 12 years old! The range was in the basement of a business on the main street. It had been a lumber supply and woodworking shop, and the range was in the concrete-lined trough where the saw and planer shavings had been dumped. With no external lighting, it was accessed from a dark alley which ran behind the stores, not the kind of place you’d want 12/14 year old boys to be today, especially in bigger cities.
I told the men running the show that I was “almost 12”, conveniently ignoring the missing 10 months. In a school class of 15+ boys, I was usually the third shortest. Still, there was a boy a year older, who was even shorter. He and I had to stand on a block of wood to get up to the firing window, where we shot standing up. After about a year, the building changed owners, and we moved to the basement gym of the now-unused high school. This was accessed through a rear entrance with no lights until an adult with a key came to unlock a door, invisible in the darkness. Not much of an improvement.
I didn’t think about it at the time, but there was a lot of time and energy volunteered by a succession of adult men. The local Game Warden’s wife couldn’t have children, so we were his surrogates for years. The president of the men’s handgun club, as well as the vice-president and the secretary, at different times, and a police chief, and later a constable, all gave of their time.
Wooden boxes with quilt pads were provided for prone shooting, and a new target holder/bullet catcher was built. Every meeting night started off with a lecture on firearm handling and safety. In seven years with the club, I amassed almost 350 hours of gun responsibility training.
As social awareness and political correctness began to flower in the mid-fifties, someone must have decided that there needed to be more to our little group, than just a bunch of boys firing target rifles. Behind the high school was a city-block sized small lake. The town had created a pathway around it, with a couple of bridges over incoming creeks, and a couple of lookout/picnic areas, but didn’t have the finances to maintain it. It was decided that our little club would adopt it, care for it and improve it.
We mowed the grass, raked the path, cut back weeds and branches, and helped our menfolk to mend the bridges. We put on tag-days in the summers, when the town was full of wealthy tourists, and solicited donations from local businesses. The shoreline moved in and out because the level of the lake varied with the seasons. We got a concrete contractor to install, at greatly reduced charge, a small dam with a controllable spillway on the drainage stream.
We cleaned out and expanded one lookout/picnic area, and got a stone supply company to build a wishing-well, with a little spray fountain. The coins from the fountain went for further improvements. We bought a bunch of birds to put into the lake, including a pair of swans, four farm-type geese, and some Muscovy ducks, to attract coin-tossers to our little park.
The first summer, we lost a few birds, and some of the rest lost a foot or leg. There were lots of scenic little mud turtles in the lake, but apparently there were also some snapping turtles with a taste for fowl. No wonder there had been no floating natives. Someone designed and built a snapper-trapper from heavy wire and chicken screen. I and another lad, whose father was a commercial fisherman, were given a rowboat, and the responsibility to check the traps daily. Turtles caught were shot by the constable and sold to a Chinese restaurant which made them into turtle soup. We finally caught the old Grand-daddy, which was as big as a washtub. We cleared the lake and ensured safety for our birds.
The birds’ wings were clipped so that they wouldn’t fly away, although, with daily feedings, they probably wouldn’t have strayed. During the winters, we rented space in a farmer’s barn at the edge of town. Pairs of us were allocated two-week periods when we stopped in daily to feed and water our feathered charges. Fisher-boy and I would get off the school bus, do our farm chores and walk home afterwards.
A couple of years after I left home to get a job, the club dissolved. There was just not the interest from the younger lads in town anymore, and the adults had more responsibilities and less free time. The town took back responsibility for the lake, and replaces aging waterfowl. They have even added a floating spray fountain a hundred feet off-shore.
This was an enjoyable part of my life, when I learned co-operation and pay-it-forward type social responsibility. I look back on it with great fondness and pride. I helped make a difference.